I have a love/hate relationship with sugar. I crave it, I avoid it, I even make deals with myself over it. But with so much conflicting nutrition information available, how do we know what level of sugar intake is best for us?
Sugar-reduction, sugar-elimination and sugar-free diets trend pretty high amongst dieters. I tend to shy away from any diet that comes across a little pugnacious towards any particular food group, so I look to Ayurveda and those following a yogic diet for a holistic approach to understanding my sugar intake.
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The Sweet taste is considered by Ayurveda as the most important of all of the six tastes, and it is suggested that it should be eaten in the largest quantity. But by Sweet, Ayurveda means naturally sweet foods including milk, ghee, rice, wheat and other grains and legumes, as well as sweet fruits, dates, honey, jaggery and sugar. Ayurveda considers Sweet a taste, made up of elements and qualities which all have an effect on the body and mind. Ayurveda provides us with a bio-chemical, bio-energetic and bio-spiritual understanding of food.
Ayurveda teaches that the Sweet taste nourishes and invigorates the mind, relieves hunger and thirst, increases tissues and improves the immune system. Importantly, it is associated with the positive emotions of happiness, contentment, calmness, cheerfulness, love and satisfaction when eaten in appropriate amounts.
So what is an appropriate amount? If you adhere to an Ayurvedic or Sattvic diet you will naturally be avoiding sugar-laden processed foods including soft drinks, condiments, cereals, candies etc. You also probably tend to have less fruit and juice and mostly eat home-cooked meals made from whole grains, legumes, vegetables, spices, and healthy fats/oils – all low fructose and low glycemic index.
When you are looking for something sweet, go for natural and unprocessed sweeteners, for example honey on your porridge and home-made cookies made with whole grains and spices (fiber), and ghee (fat), which, in turn, slow down the metabolism of sugar. And, if you add a good dose of cinnamon, it will help to regulate blood sugar levels.
The main difference between the Ayurvedic view and the western view on sugar intake is that Ayurveda acknowledges the differences between sugars. For example, honey is sweet and heating, has the specific effect of ‘scraping fat’ from the body, and it pacifies Vata and Kapha while increasing Pitta. Jaggery is sweet and cooling, has a heavy, strengthening effect on the body, and pacifies Vata while increasing Pitta and Kapha. White sugar on the other hand, is sweet, heating, and has a stimulating effect on the body aggravating all of the doshas (Vata, Pitta and Kapha).
Less processed sugars like jaggery, honey and maple syrup are considered more Sattvic, having a peaceful effect on our minds. Highly processed sugars like white sugar and synthetic replacement sweeteners, on the other hand, are Rajasic and Tamasic – creating strong outward-seeking desire combined with dullness, depression and ignorance in the mind.
From an Ayurvedic perspective it is important that you get to know your sugars! Whenever possible, choose more natural sugars over their highly processed counterparts. And as far as sugar-elimination diets go, unless there is a medical necessity, from an Ayurvedic perspective, we need to consider long-term moderation combined with well-timed and precise restraint rather than radical and restrictive elimination approaches.
What is your relationship to sugar? Have you eliminated, reduced or limited your sugar intake on purpose or has it come about organically as a result of your yogic lifestyle?